There's Much to Do in One of the US' Smallest States
Compact but Compelling by Susan McKee
is improbably shaped and ridiculously small, just 2,044 square miles. Only 96
miles long and averaging 39 miles wide, it is one of those East Coast states you
can visit in a day. Yet, it was the setting for many of the key experiences that
set aside almost a week in early summer last year to explore the first state to
ratify the United States Constitution, a place that was home to three signers
of the Declaration of Independence, one of the first areas of conflict between
European colonists and native tribes, and a region wrestled over by a half dozen
groups of rival claimants over the years.
Henry Hudson had seen the region a year earlier, while sailing for the Dutch,
he didn't pay much attention. An Englishman, Samuel Argall, encountered the area
quite by accident a year later. Sir Thomas West, the first governor of the Virginia
colony, had sent him to explore the Atlantic coast north of Jamestown. Blown off
course in a storm, Argall found himself in a large bay that he cleverly named
for his patron - better known as the third Lord de la Warr.
nobleman returned to England without ever visiting his namesake territory, but
left his moniker behind. Colonists used "Delaware" not only to denote
the bay, but the river, the area and the native peoples who lived there. They
didn't call themselves the Delaware until decades later. In the 17th century,
they were the Lenape, usually translated as "original people".
English had a minor role in Delaware in the beginning (although all three counties
in the state now bear British place names).
first permanent settlement was Dutch, established near what is now Lewes, in 1631
- so, that's where I started my journey.
arrived in Delaware on a ferry from Cape May, NJ, - an especially appropriate
way to enter a town settled by seafaring people. A small group under the leadership
of Capt. Peter Heyes established the first community on the site, Zwaanendael
("Valley of Swans in Dutch) in 1631.
Round one of the battle went to the
Lenape: all the Dutch were slaughtered and the town burned in 1632. But, new colonists
took their place.
Zwaanendael Museum. Built in 1931 in Lewes, to replicate the town hall of Hoorn
in the Netherlands. (Photo by Susan McKee)
spent a pleasant hour or so wandering the Zwaanendael Museum, built in 1931 to
replicate the town hall in Hoorn, hometown of the original settlers. It depicts
the region's history from its founding to the present. Lewes
is a quiet place now, but in its heyday, it was a rowdy whaling town - a port
of call for pirates including Captain Kidd. It was shelled by the British during
the War of 1812, and a cannonball remains lodged in the wall of the colonial-era
building that now houses a marine museum.
is on the coast of Sussex, the southernmost county in Delaware. It's just north
of Rehoboth Beach, location of a legendary outlet mall (which I didn't visit)
and an infamous seashell shop (which I did). Shopping, always a popular pastime
for tourists, is especially fashionable in Delaware because there is no sales
Shell City, however, is one-of-a-kind private museum. Downstairs is the usual
selection of tourist tschotkes. Upstairs is the Discover Sea Shipwreck Museum,
which lures 90,000 visitors a year to see its 6,500 artifacts (only 10% of the
total collection). Where else could you find a 10-1/2 foot-long gold chain from
a Caribbean shipwreck alongside silverware from the Titanic?
the state capital, is in the middle of Kent County. Here, on Dec. 7, 1787, Delaware
was the first of the 13 original states to ratify the new Constitution of the
United States earning its nickname, "The First State".
capital city is so small you can easily find a place to park at a meter on downtown
streets. I confess that I spent more time in the Johnson Victrola Museum than
touring the old 1792 statehouse. (Local son, E. R. Johnson founded the Victor
Talking Machine Company.) The listening room, with its unmatched collection of
early vinyl, is terrific.
Dover, I drove north to Wilmington. Originally settled by Swedes, it's the state's
largest city and the anchor for New Castle County.
this point in my journey, I wasn't as interested in the city itself as in the
wealth of museums in the Brandywine Valley nearby made possible by the duPont
family fortune. The industrial history of the U.S. can be summarized in the growth
of this company from a small gunpowder manufacturer to global producer of complex
started at the Hagley - where Eleuthère Irénée duPont de
Nemours began producing gunpowder in 1802 - and finished at Winterthur, where
all the wealth accumulated through the generations is shown to full advantage.
My other stops could have been Longwood Gardens and the Nemours Mansion and Gardens
- but by then I was upscale museum'd out. Instead, I crossed the border into Pennsylvania
and toured the Mushroom Museum in Kennett Square.
convoluted history of Delaware is obvious in the northern part of the state. If
you look at a map, you'll see that the top is defined by an arc carved out of
Pennsylvania, the west and south are straight lines marking Maryland, and the
east is formed by the uneven shore of Delaware Bay.
straight-line boundaries remind us that those famous surveyors, Charles Mason
and Jeremiah Dixon, were imported from England in 1760 to determine exactly where
Maryland ended and Delaware began - settling a long-standing dispute.
top border is part of a circle with a 12-mile radius, centered on the cupola of
the courthouse in New Castle - long story there involving, among others, Pennsylvania's
William Penn and Maryland's Lord Baltimore. Governance of the last piece of real
estate, "the wedge" where Mason & Dixon's boundary didn't quite
line up with "the arc" wasn't settled until 1921.
the way, Delaware, a slave-holding state before the Civil War that didn't join
the Confederacy, lies neither north nor south of the Mason-Dixon Line - it's east.
I was driving to Delaware from New Jersey, I took my car on the Cape May-Lewes
Ferry. On weekends and during the summer, it's probably best to make a reservation
at least 24 hours in advance to be sure of a parking spot on board.
are multitudes of places to stay in Delaware, from small bed-and-breakfasts to
country inns to the usual chain motels. You might want to call ahead in the summer
if you have to sleep somewhere in particular, but if you're driving and a place
is sold out - you can just drive to the next town.
only one place to eat in Delaware: anywhere that serves boiled crab. (How could
you think of dining on anything else?) Pack Wet-Naps for the inevitable clean-ups.
Johnson Victrola Museum is located at Bank Lane and New Street, Dover.
"must" stop in the state capital is the Delaware Made General Store,
214 South State Street, which features items made in the First State.
New Castle, the Historical Society of Delaware gives tours at the Read House and
Gardens, built in 1801 right on the Delaware River .
Mushroom Museum in Kennett Square, alas, has closed its doors since I was there.
So, while this corner of Pennsylvania is the epicenter of mushroom production
for the United States, you'll just have to take my word for it.
major museums in the Brandywine Valley are nicely signposted.